Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Immigration and the Decline of Capitol Hill

In the 1920s, Capitol Hill became vacated and began falling apart. The author of the amusing and insightful 301 East Capitol, Mary Z. Gray, noted the decline of Capitol Hill during her childhood at this time:
It wasn't just that there were not other children around; all of Capitol Hill seemed to be becoming decrepit. If Mama weren't having Grandpap's elderly sisters to Sunday dinner, she was making 'courtesy calls' on maiden ladies in black dresses who cherished 'papa's' memory, and feared that their inheritance was not enough to see them through. Consequently, their inherited family houses badly needed upkeep and repairs, but the money wasn't there to do it. Many once-elegant houses were falling apart. Capitol Hill was beginning its downhill slide, which didn't begin to reverse upward for the next 30 or more years. (p. 89)
Capitol Hill's downhill slide would continue for many decades afterwards. Many white families, including Mary Z. Gray's, moved to the suburbs, but they would or could not sell their houses to African Americans or other groups understood by whites at that time as reducing the value of their houses and neighborhoods. Whites used racially restrictive covenants and more informal means of housing discrimination to maintain their housing values. African Americans lived in particular parts of Capitol Hill, and their numbers on Capitol Hill increased in the 1930s with gentrification in Georgetown and the 1960s with the destruction and gentrification of Southwest DC. In the 1920s, those white families left behind could not maintain their houses and there were not new, younger white families moving to Capitol Hill. This downhill slide happened well before the Great Depression of 1929. What was happening in the 1920s?

Yesterday, I came across a very interesting additional cause of this decline. The glorious urban sociology professor at the New School Janet Abu-Lughod, who sadly passed away in December, wrote about a similar 1920s decline of the East Village and Lower East Side in New York City:
When immigration laws were changed in the early 1920s...the normal flow of successive new immigrants through the area was interrupted, leaving a weakened real estate market which in the period immediately following World War II collapsed entirely, as the children of the final European immigrant cohort availed themselves of both prosperity and the new opportunities for subsidized suburban settlement; they deserted the zone wholesale.(1) 
The 1921 and 1924 immigration laws placed quotas on the number of immigrants by country of origin allowed into the US (while completely excluding Asian immigrants). According to George Mason University's History Matters website: "Initially, the 1924 law imposed a total quota on immigration of 165,000—less than 20 percent of the pre-World War I average." Could this severe reduction in immigration flows, based on racism and ethnic discrimination, as well as the increasing use of racially restrictive covenants and more informal means of housing discrimination, have helped bring about the collapse of Capitol Hill in the 1920s? Further investigation will be needed to figure this out.

(1) Abu-Lughod, Janet. 1994. “Diversity, Democracy, and Self-Determination in an Urban Neighborhood: The East Village of Manhattan.” Social Research 61(1):181–203.


  1. “In the 1920’s, Capitol Hill became vacated and began falling apart” (because) “white families would or could not sell their houses to African Americans or other groups understood by whites at that time as reducing the value of their houses and neighborhoods” (and) “there were not new, younger white families moving to Capitol Hill.”

    I hope I haven’t misstated the basis of the post. Our block of 51 houses is typical in many ways of Capitol Hill’s development. The first black family bought a new house in 1872, joining 15 white families already living here. What was happening in the 1920’s? Both black and white families were moving here. Sales of the block’s older houses to African Americans began during the 1920’s; six white owners sold their houses to African Americans during that decade. Those sellers generally moved to other houses nearby, not the suburbs. Far from becoming vacated or collapsing, the block saw a row of 13 new houses built at its south end in 1923. They sold quickly to white buyers, who moved in with their families or rented their investment to white tenants. At the time there were about 11 houses here owned or rented by African Americans. I’ve found only one covenant, which required the buyers to honor whatever (unspecified) restrictions applied to the property. The buyers were themselves African American. In 1930 one or more households were enumerated in each house except one. There were 55 children younger than 18 on the block, 38 white, 17 black. In 1940, once again residents in all but one house were enumerated. There were then 73 children under 18, 38 white, 35 black. The Hill was a viable community appreciated by its residents. Capitol Hill lined up with the Lower East Side—wow, that's a thought. Sandy

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